Ascension Sunday

Rev. Laura Merrill | May 16, 2021

“Remember what I told you.” It’s one of my favorite lines in the gospels, ranking right up there with, “Do not be afraid.” Repeatedly during the season of Eastertide, which is coming to a close today, Jesus says these words to his befuddled disciples. “Remember what I told you.” It’s easy to understand why they need reminding—they surely could hardly believe what they were seeing, here in chapter 24. His resurrected body, post-grave, post-cross, post-trial and torture, walking around and eating breakfast and giving them fishing lessons. “Remember what I told you, when I was still with you.” 

But we remember, his friends didn’t get it while he was with them. They didn’t understand what he was talking about most of the time. He would speak in a parable, and then he would have to explain it to them. Then he said the first would have to be last and the last, first, and blessed are the poor, and those who are meek or sad—which doesn’t make sense—and then how camels get through the eye of a needle easier than rich people get into the kingdom of heaven. And they didn’t get it. And he would talk about dying, and they sure didn’t get that, and he would talk about rising, but by then they’d stopped listening. “Remember what I told you,” Jesus says to them. 

Here, in the afterglow of Mother’s Day, this theme reminds me of the mom who goes away on a trip and tries to leave everything ready for her family, so no one starves to death while she’s gone. I want to acknowledge right up front that this is not a fair description of many households; there are plenty of good dads who keep their children well fed; there are plenty of homes where there’s no mom in charge of the food. I understand that. But in my own life, my own life history, both as a kid, and as a mom, I remember the experience of the list on the fridge when the mama goes away. It might be color-coded, maybe with the chores that need to happen on different days. Or it might be an actual calendar, with the squares filled in, indicating what the people are supposed to eat on every day. 

Tuesday: Subway, after baseball practice. 

Wednesday: Spaghetti; new jar of sauce in the pantry. Parentheses: Also on Wednesday, take the casserole in the glass dish with the blue lid out of the freezer, and place in fridge to thaw. Close parentheses.

Thursday: Casserole and salad; see heating instructions below, and start an hour before you want to eat. Asterisk: Preheat oven to 350 degrees; take off the blue lid and replace with foil; put in the oven and bake for 50 minutes. Let sit on the stove for 5-10 minutes, while you make the salad.

    Friday: Whataburger. 

The mamas in my story knew that the people being left behind had a limited tolerance for following unfamiliar instructions. That’s a situation that can be critiqued and examined, to figure out who didn’t teach whom, and who didn’t learn what, and whatever else. But the point of the example is that the mom wants the people to be ok in her absence, and she does everything she can to set them up, but then they’re on their own. I absolutely know that sometimes the people choose not to take the casserole out of the freezer—even though you made it special, just for them—because they say they don’t know how to turn on the oven. They might have cereal that night instead, or go to Whataburger two nights in a row. But they make it work, and everybody survives while Mama is gone.

In the scripture today, we find Jesus giving his disciples their final instructions. The difference between these instructions and Mama’s list on the fridge is that he’s not coming back. This final chapter of Luke moves quickly from Easter morning to today’s ascension. But from there to here, we have these little episodes repeated, where the disciples, the people of Jesus, are encouraged to remember. “Remember what Jesus told you,” the angel said early that morning in the garden. “Remember,” Jesus said, “it’s in the scriptures that the Messiah had to suffer,” he teaches on the road to Emmaus; “so now remember me in the breaking of the bread.” “Remember,” he tells them here at the end, “your job is to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins. And always remember, God has promised to clothe you with power from on high.” 

On the eve of what is about to be a bewildering new time without him, Jesus is working to get his friends ready. These people, who have bumbled and stumbled through following their Lord, even when he was right in front of them, are about to be totally on their own. Tag, you’re it! I take some comfort in our kinship with those first disciples. That’s because the fact that you and I are even here this morning—and thanks be to God that we can be—is a fact that this story was told and enacted, not just for their benefit for the people in it, it was told for our benefit as well. If this life of following Jesus had been a one-and-done project, it would have either died out with those disciples who knew him personally, or even with Jesus himself, in first-century Palestine. But Jesus wasn’t just setting up those people. He was setting us up, too. This is the great Christian experiment. We, along with the generations before us, are the great Christian experiment. Can we, with him gone, help each other remember what he said? Can we help each other remember what he told us to do? 

We are in just about as bewildering a time as can be. We’ve so demonized each other and isolated ourselves, we can hardly bear to talk to people with different opinions anymore, out of what feels like legitimate self-defense. “I can’t, I just can’t.” Human beings are hacking away at the health of our earth. We don’t want to acknowledge the harm we do to black, brown, and indigenous people, poor or immigrant people, lgbtq people.   And then, when we want to seek refuge in the faith, that which has always at least been a comfort, we find that the church as an institution in this country is itself rattled, in ways we don’t understand. You know all the things. Yet there goes Jesus, off into heaven leaving us behind. As we stand with his disciples, I hope we can hear what they hear, and see what they see. 

Because Jesus first, Luke says, opens their minds to understand the scriptures, and he calls them witnesses. Witnesses are people who have seen or experienced something and then tell about it. And while we didn’t see what they saw, the real, flesh and blood Jesus, we must have seen something. To keep coming here, to sign on online, to send our money and teach our children—we must have experienced something. What is it? We hear the witness of fellow Christians stand right here and tell their stories on Sunday. So what’s your story? How have you been touched or changed or healed? Especially in the midst of today’s division and cruelty and COVID, what have you seen that you could tell about? I know there’s something. Jesus calls them—and us—witnesses.

Then Jesus blesses them, and we can trust he blesses us. A blessing is a word of favor, of affirmation—one of the writers I turn to most often in my devotions, Jan Richardson, says that blessings “call upon and convey God’s deepest desire for our wholeness and well-being…” A blessing is not magic, she says; it does not fix things for us. Instead, “A blessing speaks from God’s mysterious heart into our own heart, meeting us in our ache for connection and presence. A blessing taps into our longing for what lies beyond our experience and understanding.” Imagine it, as a mother might bless her family upon leaving, how much more Jesus would pour out blessing on those he loves, as he goes. Imagine yourself now, even close your eyes, and see Jesus’ face as he blesses you; feel yourself receiving that love from him.

Finally, Jesus is gone. And Luke tells us that these friends of his, who watched him go, worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with joy. Now there’s a word—joy. After all the not understanding, after the death and trauma and confusion, now joy. They have what they need; he has given them all they need and has promised to continue to do so. And somehow, perhaps they knew, or were beginning to see, that the Ascendant Christ could now always be with them, always present, to them and to all the ones after them. This is why we sing together today with such joy. It’s not just that now Christ has put on his crown and taken his throne, not just that he is high and mighty. Who cares? The joy comes from knowing that his reign as King of life eternal, his seat of victory over death forever—these mean his promise of power and blessing can be true for us, even now, even here. 

We know it, because we’ve seen it. We didn’t see him disappear into the clouds that day, but we’ve seen plenty else. We know what a transformed heart and life look like; we’ve seen it; we are it. We know that forgiveness and compassion and welcome are always the right answer, because it’s happened to us. We’ve seen miracles happen when people do hard work and make sacrifices for justice and kindness. We have felt the power of a word of blessing. Thanks to the love and grace of God in Christ Jesus, tag, we’re it. So look now, for the chance to share your joy. Watch now, for the place where you can witness. Remember what he has said to us. Help each other remember what he told us to do. Listen now, for the power that’s coming, and sing your song with joy.